This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

735px-Rapids_of_Ohio_River_by_Hutchins
A description of the Ohio River, by Thomas Hutchins, the U.S. Geographer. THOMAS HUTCHINS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From reconstructing the Chinese empire to America’s case of ‘Tonkin Gulfitis’, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.


Reconstruction of the Chinese Empire for China’s Peaceful Rise

Suisheng Zhao
IPP Review

An ancient empire with a recorded history of more than 2,000 years, imperial China began a steady decline and plunged into chaos — with war, famine, isolation, and revolution — in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After more than a century of struggle for national rejuvenation, China has resurged in the 21st century to regain the power it enjoyed two centuries ago. While the memory of the glorious empire has left the legacy of an ethnocentric world outlook, the century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialist powers has created a unique and strong sense of victimization, insecurity and righteousness in foreign affairs. These historical memories have been a powerful force that not only bind the Chinese people together and form their national identity, but they also motivate Chinese leaders to find what they regard as China’s rightful place in the world.

Chinese leaders have, however, selectively used these historical memories to serve their political and strategic objectives. For more than half a century after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese leaders focused on commemorating the century of humiliation to help build regime legitimacy based on their nationalist credentials of driving imperialist powers out of China. Their attitude towards imperial China was ambivalent because the Chinese empire, like other empires in the world, expanded vast territories along its frontiers and left complicated historical legacies, including territorial disputes and cultural chauvinism that impacted its relations with its Asian neighbors. [continue reading]

Free Tibet

Charlie Hore
Jacobin

“Free Tibet” has long been a celebrity cause, one marshaled by generations of Hollywood actors and liberals looking for a cause. Socialists, however, have been more skeptical. China’s invasion of Tibet, many argue, ended feudal and theocratic rule and started a liberation process that continues to this day. They’ll admit that the People’s Republic of China hasn’t run Tibet flawlessly. Mistakes were made; the Cultural Revolution was unfortunate. But you wouldn’t want to see the Dalai Lama back, would you?

Almost willfully, this narrative overlooks the way in which Tibet has been a victim of old-fashioned colonization. The record of the last sixty years is striking: an invasion by a more powerful neighbour that produced tens of thousands of refugees; manmade famines that killed tens of thousands more; attempts to wipe out local culture, religion, and language; and rule by thousands of Chinese officials, the vast majority  of whom never spoke Tibetan; and decades of violent repression. [continue reading]

When Land Surveys Were a Modern Marvel

Sarah Laskow
Atlas Obscura

On September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first and only Geographer of the United States, set out to divide the country’s Western lands into neat, square parcels. He was supposed have a team of 13 men, one representing each new state, but only eight had shown up. At least three had an ulterior motive—they were allied with private investment companies eager to scout out land that would soon put up for sale.

The project Hutchins and his team were embarking on was innovative and massively ambitious, but it began in a small way, at a wooden post staked on the north bank of the Ohio River, at the western border of Pennsylvania. With a couple of simple measurement tools and a compass, the men started their work, measuring and marking out a line due west into Ohio. It took them more than a week to work over four miles, and that was it for the year. Hutchins was not willing to travel farther west and risk running into the violent conflict with the Lenape, which had sparked after a Pennsylvania militia massacred 96 people. [continue reading]

The stench of the Iraq war lingers behind today’s preoccupation with fake news

Jeff Sparrow
Guardian

Australia invaded Iraq purely and simply to cement the alliance with the US. The purported justifications for war – preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, enforcing international law, fighting terrorism – were “mandatory rhetoric”, nothing more. So says Dr Albert Palazzo from defence’s directorate of army research and analysis, in a secret report (released under FOI) based on multiple interviews conducted within military, and extensive access to classified material.

When Fairfax published a major feature last week about Palazzo’s research, the story made barely a ripple on the Australian political pond, probably because most people already recognise the unparalleled cynicism and dishonesty by which “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was foisted on an unwilling nation. Nonetheless, Palazzo’s document still matters, as much for what it reveals about the politics of today as for its insights into the chicanery of 2003. [continue reading]

America’s Case of ‘Tonkin Gulfitis’

Mark Atwood Lawrence
New York Times

On May 22, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson received alarming news from the Middle East. The government of Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran, the narrow waterway linking the Red Sea to Israel, to Israeli shipping. The move dramatically escalated Arab-Israeli tensions and pushed the region to the brink of war. Johnson’s instinct was to act boldly to defuse the crisis. He proposed assembling an American-led naval force to escort Israeli ships through the straits and push Egypt to back down. But L.B.J. soon discovered problems.

For one, Congress, wary of new military commitments when nearly half a million Americans were fighting in Vietnam, seemed certain to oppose the idea. Congress had a bad case of “Tonkin Gulfitis,” warned Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Many legislators, in other words, believed the Senate had made a grievous mistake four years earlier by giving the president a blank check to wage war in Vietnam after American warships came under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. The fighting in Southeast Asia had bogged down into a grueling stalemate, and the last thing the United States seemed to need was another difficult military challenge far from American shores. [continue reading]

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